Estate planning professionals are seeing a boom in business as people hunker down at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has many of us grappling with the possibility that our health and lives could change drastically within a short period of time.
If these possibilities have forced you to consider doing a will and other legal documents or simply getting your affairs in order, this article will provide you with some tips to aid you in the process.
Small Steps Towards Peace of Mind
It may not be possible to get a plan in place during the novel corona virus lockdown. However, there are things you can do that prepare you to act once services are more available and provide you with some comfort that you can take care of the items that you can address now.
- Write down everything of financial and sentimental value that you own.
- Write a list the people in your life that you trust in categories of trust. List who you trust with healthcare decisions, financial decisions, with children, and with conflict. For each category it’s important to have at least two people. When you choose people in your estate plan, a nominee and one or two back-ups are sufficient.
- Write down a list of people and pets who need your care and could be impacted if you are no longer able to care for them because you need care yourself or because you have passed away.
- Download or request the beneficiary forms for all of your financial accounts and confirm that they list the beneficiaries you want. Don’t forget you can list a mix of primary beneficiaries and you can list your beloved organizations such as religious institution, alma mater, etc. as beneficiaries too.
- Research estate planning attorneys in your area and reach out to learn about their services and fees. You should also consider getting a consultation to understand what happens based on your circumstances if you get sick or pass away. The legal answer may surprise and/or comfort you.
- Research business attorneys well-versed in business succession planning. Just like with estate planning, you should consider getting a consultation to understand what happens to your business if you get sick or pass away.
What Documents Do You Need
These are the basic documents you need take care of you while you’re alive and support your loved ones in settling your affairs when you pass away:
- Financial power of attorney;
- Healthcare power of attorney;
- Advance healthcare directives, e.g. living will;
- Trust; and
- Last will and testament.
In addition to these documents, beneficiary forms and asset titles (such as vehicle titles) provide important opportunities to do planning. If, for example, you have a retirement account or life insurance account, they will have forms on which you list the people or organizations that will become owners of those assets when you pass away.
Therefore, a first step in your planning should be to write a list of all of your assets. In that list, determine which assets you can plan for by using a beneficiary form or updating title (ownership). It is important to include them in your pandemic estate planning.
If you own a business, you should also consider whether your business legal documents are set up for management and ownership succession if you are not able to lead your business or if you pass away. Each business type (e.g. limited liability company, corporation, etc.) has associated governing documents that can be used to plan. Working with a lawyer to make sure these reflect your needs and values will be a boost to achieving your goals.
Where To Get the Documents You Need
I will always advocate for working with an attorney. Even in these extraordinary times, working with a skilled estate planning attorney is the best option because they are tasked with developing a plan that meets your individual circumstances and your goals.
Legal documents that you download or buy from the store may support your needs and goals. However, in using them you run the huge risk that they will not and that they will not be executed (signed) according to the law in order to make them effective. So start with an attorney.
If you absolutely cannot find an attorney in your state who can help you during this time, you can use the form documents for everything but the will. Handwriting your will and signing it is likely better than using a form document since states have specific requirements for what makes a self-prepared will effective.
CAUTION: if you go this route in using form documents and a handwritten will, your first priority when you can regularly access legal services should be to hire an estate planning attorney to assist you in developing a plan for you.
How Do You Get the Documents Signed
To be legally effective, the documents described above need your signature and they need the signature of others too- witnesses and a notary. The exception to this for most states is the handwritten will.
Witnesses must be people who will not personally benefit or potentially receive any asset from your death. Finding witnesses and a notary under these circumstances will be very challenging.
Therefore, it is important that you:
- Understand whether your state requires witnesses and/or a notary for each of the types of documents described;
- Understand whether your state requires all of the signing parties to be present at the time you sign or at the same time as each other;
- Understand whether your state allows remote witnessing and/or remote notary services (witnessing by video); and
- Create a list of potential service providers who can help you meet those requirements.
Again, start with attorneys as your first resource for the above information and for the actual services.
National Notary Association provides up-to-date information on notary services available across the country including measures states have taken during COVID-19.
There you will find a list of states that allow remote notary services. Note that remote notary services are different from electronic notary services. Your focus should be on remote notary services.
Funeral homes, especially in the Black community, are a bountiful resource in our lives during any period. Your local funeral home may have a notary on staff and have witnesses available since they are essential business that are continuing operations.
Also check with banks in your area, especially branches located in retail spaces, e.g. big box stores. Bank branches typically have notaries on staff. It’s helpful to call ahead to confirm the availability notary services and witnesses and set an appointment if you can.
Whether you get documents with the help of an attorney or on your own, make sure you store your documents in a safe place and communicate your plan with your loved ones. Find more detailed information on estate planning, please review this article for addition insights and information.
If you haven’t created an estate plan with the help of an attorney, why not? What’s holding you back? Let us know in the comments or email us an firstname.lastname@example.org
– Contributed by Mavis Gragg
Mavis is a seasoned attorney and conservation professional with nearly two decades of experience in real estate, conflict resolution, estate planning, and probate. She serves as the Director of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Project at the American Forest Foundation.
Prior to this role, Mavis founded the Gragg Law Firm, PLLC in which she assisted her clients in estate planning, estate administration, and heirs property matters.
When she is not being a justice girl, Mavis can be found at an art gallery, trotting the globe, or on the dance floor.